Donald Trump has no critic more outspoken and consistent than John Cusack, the iconic actor who has starred in films including Say Anything . . . , The Grifters, Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity, and War, Inc. and is featured in a new web television series, Utopia.
Cusack has always been political. He’s been an outspoken defender of whistleblowers, serving as a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, meeting with Edward Snowden, and co-authoring the book Things That Can and Cannot Be Said with author and activist Arundhati Roy.
As a foe of the Iraq War, Cusack decried the Bush-Cheney Administration as “depressing, corrupt, unlawful, and tragically absurd.” A sharp critic of corporate Democrats and the neoliberal agenda as it is expressed in both major parties, Cusack campaigned this year for Bernie Sanders. Now, like many progressives, he is supporting Joe Biden to end Trump’s presidency. Cusack reflected on the election in several recent conversations, from which this interview is drawn.
Q: You campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and you were quite critical of Joe Biden. Now, however, you find yourself arguing that a vote for Biden is urgent. Give me a sense of how you’re thinking about the November election.
John Cusack: I think we vote for Biden and then, the very next day, we haunt him with every one of Bernie’s policy positions. We go: health care, living wage, student debt, green energy. We keep that pressure on him from day one.
We have to recognize that, as Noam Chomsky says, we are voting against neofascism, and yet we are also voting for more neoliberalism. After the election, we have to push the neoliberals back into the New Deal framework that the times demand. There’s going to have to be an FDR-like intervention.
There has to be a reckoning.
It’s interesting that the Democrats want to bask in the glow of FDR, but they don’t want to actually do any of his policies. I don’t know why they’re not just saying, “There will not be a permanent underclass that is in crippling debt with the Democrats in charge. We are going to make the billionaires pay, and we’re going to get economic justice coming in all across these various fields where we all know that needs to happen.”
So what I’m really saying is that, if you don’t feel like you can vote for Joe Biden, then you vote against Trump. You vote out Trump and then fight.
Q: You’ve talked about how frustrating it is that Democrats don’t simply run as progressives. We both know that when the party’s Wall Street wing frames the message, they never get through to a lot of disenfranchised and disenchanted voters.
“Trump is a con man, but he’s a bad one. I think he’s more of a sociopath. He’s decided it doesn’t matter what he lies about or how much he lies about.”
Cusack: And they still can’t, even in this era now, when you see Trump running to the left. I mean, he’s of course lying about everything he says, but he still runs to the left of the Democrats on endless wars and all this stuff. Because he knows that that hypocrisy exists.
To me, if you don’t do a living wage, if you don’t take care of health care, if you don’t take on the NRA, if you don’t do medical and student debt relief, green energy, if you can’t come out and say that the Democratic Party is not going to allow a permanent underclass, subject to the whims of neoliberal capitalism, it’s a problem. I don’t know how they can think they’re going to win with the Rahm Emanuel playbook.
Q: You’re hitting on something important when you note that Trump has figured out the hypocrisy and how to talk about it.
Cusack: He’s going to say, “Oh yeah, I know the swamp, I know all these people. They all do the same thing.” And you know what? He’s a liar, but a con man always works with partial truths. The partial truth is that nobody did anything. The neoliberal establishment threw the working class under the bus thirty fucking years ago.
Q: You have been raging about Donald Trump since he came on the political scene. A lot of people treated him as a fool, but you took the threat he posed seriously from the beginning.
Cusack: In essence, I think that the pre-Trump landscape, neoliberalism, is the landscape that gave us Trump. So he is the logical kind of dark absurdist extension of that kind of savage, unchecked capitalism run amok.
We knew that this person had kind of a mobster or a gangster instinct in all these things, and he clearly doesn’t have the temperament or any principles at all. He can’t even understand the concept of service to other people. The idea of service in any way is something that confuses him. He doesn’t understand anything that isn’t just completely transactional.
But, studying history and the playwrights, we know that fascists are usually seen as clowns and buffoons, and then you look underneath and there’s war paint behind the clown makeup.
As soon as Trump started ripping children from their mothers’ arms, he wasn’t a fake fascist anymore. He wasn’t a pretend fascist. It wasn’t a reality TV show fascism. It was on. It was real.
I knew, I think from 2016 on, that this was not going to be anything benign. From the night he was elected, I thought democracy was peering over the abyss. We were under an existential threat, and now we see things that we’d never imagined in our lives pretty much every week.
Q: Trump has relied on racism and xenophobia, so aggressively, so overtly. What does that tell us about him, and frankly what does that tell us about America?
Cusack: The pandemic has given us an X-ray machine to examine all the cruel injustices that pass for business as usual, right?
So Trump, whatever you can say about him, is not business as usual. He’s a chaos machine. But he’s exploiting all that hypocrisy.
I’ve been saying for a while: What we have here is the politics of Helter Skelter. We know what he’s doing. He’s demonizing immigrants and people of color. He’s using the language of white supremacy and white nationalism, classic fascist language. He’s trying to create a politics that stirs such deep divisions that people really fear a race war. Then he wants to sweep in as the law-and-order guy, coming in to bring the clampdown.
Q: You speak a lot about how what was once unacceptable is now normalized.
Cusack: What I’m saying is: Where is that sense of your father, my father? There was a sense of this fiduciary responsibility that people had in that World War II generation, which they always say was the greatest generation. I remember when you would talk to people who were lawyers or doctors or whatever they were, of a certain age, they had professional ethics.
Trump is really exposing the decadence of our institutions and our culture, and he’s got a feel for that. He’s got a gangster’s feel for it, for the weak spots, the soft underbelly. He understands where to hurt you.
Q: Well, you’ve played a grifter. You had to get your head around the grifter’s mind at one point. Doesn’t it make sense that the grifter would, at this point in our history, go political?
Cusack: Yeah, although I don’t quite like the analogy with Trump because he’s not even a good grifter. He’s just a gangster.
I mean, with grifters, in a way there was an ethics to it. You know, you had a mark, there were rules to the game. It was a dark part of human nature, but there was still honor among thieves.
Trump is a con man, but he’s a bad one. I think he’s more of a sociopath. He’s decided it doesn’t matter what he lies about or how much he lies about. If it gives him satisfaction in the moment or if it gets more people excited about him, he doesn’t care. He’s beyond shame.
I do remember when I was playing a sociopath, a guy who was a serial killer in Alaska, and I couldn’t figure out how to play the guy, right? I didn’t understand why he did what he did. As I was doing it, my eyes kept betraying all of my sympathies, and my antipathies toward the behavior that he was doing.
I listened to the tapes [of him during] interrogation, and at one point, I heard his voice crack, and I realized it was really just about his ego.
Trump is the kind of person who isn’t aware that he has a soul. I don’t think there’s any empathy, [or] sympathy, I don’t think there’s anything there.
I think he’s having a great time. I think he gets all the attention on him. He gets to talk about himself. He gets to make up any reality he wants. He gets to impose, dominate, be punitive, be cruel. He gets to do those things that he likes to do.
So I don’t see him as a Henry Gondorff in The Sting. I don’t see him as a grifter. I see him as a sociopath.
Q: How did we get to this place, where somebody like Donald Trump is the President of the United States?
Cusack: Do you remember when Bernie Sanders went to meet The New York Times editorial board? This is, you know, The New York Times, right? They’re supposed to be above all this depravity, chasing ratings from the gutters.
They cut like a reality-TV show. As Bernie said, “Hey, you know, I’m not your usual friendly guy. I’m not going to call you on Thursday and tell you I love you.” They cut to the very uncomfortable faces of the editorial board, and they had kind of reality show music.
I thought, “That’s what it is, the whole culture. It’s all show. There’s no more sense of professional ethics, fiduciary responsibility, or responsibility to other people on the highest level.”
Day to day, on the streets, in communities, you see that everywhere. I think things have been transactional for so long that everybody just feels like, as long as they get theirs, what do they care?
It seems like there’s been a sort of slow descent into this kind of madness.
Q: How do we get out of this mess?
Cusack: Usually everybody tells you you have to separate church and state. But I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: “Do you believe you have a soul?”
If you do believe you have a soul, then other people have a soul, then you have to start looking at being a different way. You have to start by not worshipping capitalism. You have to start to have different values.
The guy that I read and study, Rudolf Steiner, says that we live in an age of materialism, and our thinking is even materialistic, and we need to know spiritual truths and spiritual laws, and if we don’t learn them or embrace them out of our own free will, we will have cataclysms.
Right now, we need to be shaken out of our materialistic, self-centered view of the world, where people are either customers or marks. Capitalism will sell you the rope to hang yourself with and then make you pay for the coffin and pass the debt onto your kids.
So people need to awaken to the fact that human beings have souls, and we have to treat each other with compassion and grace.
And by the way, you’ve gotta tax the billionaires! I mean, they’ve gotta pay! Michael Bloomberg’s gotta pay! Right? All these guys gotta pay.